The woods were in tatters after a rapacious evening. Branches and twigs lay all over the forest floor, in clusters of pine needles and rags of wilting leaves. There was a raw, green smell in the humid air, a tang of pine and birch. Now the windstorm was far away, only at the edge of awareness. Sheet lightning still flared and rumbled low. The susurrus of night insects was just beginning to return. Willis Wood wandered dazed through the moonlit tangle.
Beneath the wreck of a fallen fir tree he heard a faint scrabbling. He pulled broken branches aside and found two mourning doves. One of them had a broken back, pinned by a branch; its mate was dancing back and forth with anxiety, its dark eyes round and glistening. With his fingertips he found the feathered lining of their ruined nest, and the broken eggs, already congealing.
He caught the living bird, the female, and let the branches fall back again, clutching the dove to his chest.
Through the soft gray feathers he felt the dove’s warm, skipping heartbeat next to his own. The darkness calmed the bird, and it soon ceased to struggle. Willis sat down, treasuring the fragile life of the creature, which soon slept in his gentle hands.
At false dawn, Willis set the silent dove down among the fir branches. Then he sat back down and bowed his head to his knees, awaiting the agonizing moment when daybreak would again be denied him, and knowing the unmated bird would soon cease mourning and find another.
O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
In the secret places of the cliff,
Let me see your face,
Let me hear your voice…
For love is as strong as death,
Jealousy as cruel as the grave.
-Song of Solomon
Violet’s brother Dennis bicycled down the overgrown farm lane, standing on the pedals of the battered mountain bike while she rode the seat. There was no place to brace her feet, and she balanced both their sleeping bags on her lap clutched in her arms and holding the back of her brother’s flannel shirt with her fingers, so the ride was precarious and marked by screams of childish laughter and several spills. Each time, Dennis managed to hook an arm around her, keeping her from the quartzite boulders and raspberry brambles along the path.
Her Dad set up the tent on the campsite spot leveled for the purpose, and immediately Violet and her sisters, Greta and Jill, stripped off the t-shirts and shorts they wore over their bathing suits, tossed them into the tent, and ran to the river. Soon all six of the Aubreys were splashing in the river. Dad and Dennis hefted large stones, continually enlarging and reinforcing their swim area.
Generations ago her family had owned a thousand-acre farm here, bordered by Blackbirch River; most of it had been sold off after her grandparents passed away, but her parents had wisely held on to twenty acres by the creek as a family camping and fishing spot, with a right-of-way to the road. The old farmhouse was a quarter-mile away and occupied by a retired couple, the Cronins, who let them park their car and walk the lane through overgrown pastures and the old wood lot to the river. Dad had even built a stone fireplace with a grill that smoked a lot, but it made the place seem friendly and familiar. There once had been a picnic table too, but it had rotted and the family had burned it a couple of years back.
In the evening, the fireplace was stocked with deadfall from the woods nearby, and Mom wire-brushed the rusted grate over the hearth and cooked hot dogs over the flames. Greta whined because no one had brought ketchup, and Dennis, who would leave at summer’s end for college, teased her that only weirdoes ate hot dogs with ketchup. Dad peeled oranges for the girls, and Dennis showed them how to squeeze the orange oil from the peels near the fire to produce a fleeting burst of fragrant flame. The kids spent hours poking sticks and pine cones into the fire. Violet was the youngest, and was fed too many s’mores washed down by too much soda pop. She fell asleep leaning against her Dad.
In the night she woke, needing to relieve herself. The moonlight was brilliant, so she decided not to wake her Mom. She saw a metal flashlight glinting by the zipper to
the screen flap, so she grabbed it and went out to find the little hole her father had dug for the family’s use, with a roll of toilet tissue hung on a forked stick and covered with a plastic bag.
Somehow, after, she got turned around. She could hear the river murmuring not far away, but couldn’t seem to get back to it. The moon hid its bright face behind a cloud. Then she tripped and dropped the flashlight, and the batteries fell out. She groped among the detritus, finding the smooth, heavy cylinders and assembling the flashlight by feel. But when she put them back in, the flashlight wouldn’t work. She shook it, rattling the batteries and flicking the switch repeatedly. She started crying, and just as she was about to call out for help, someone appeared.
“Hello,” he called softly so as not to startle her. “Hey there, your tent is just over this way,” he had said in a reassuring voice. A young and kindly face appeared, vague in the night. He offered his hand, but she hesitated. “Just so you won’t trip again,” he said, as she wavered. It wasn’t that she mistrusted him, but she was seven and too old to be led by the hand. Still, she took it and was grateful because he led her confidently over the scattered rocks and fallen branches in the darkness until they came to the tent.
In the clearing, the moon reappeared, revealing the man—a young one, and he looked nice. His hair was brown, but not dark, like her own; his white shirt looked a little dressy and out-of-place in the forest. Reluctantly she let go the warm, firm hand that had guided her. “Thanks for helping me.” She didn’t want him to leave just yet, and said suddenly, “You want a marshmallow?” Without waiting for his reply, she went to the metal, raccoon-proof food chest and fished inside for the bag. She handed him one slightly squashed Sno-Puf, which he accepted, examining the white confection in the moonlight before tentatively biting into it.
“My name is Violet. What’s yours?”
“My name is Willis.” He looked at the bitten marshmallow in his hand. “This is very sweet,” he said, his voice slightly muffled.
“Shh, talk quiet. You don’t want to wake my Dad. He’s grumpy in the night. Haven’t you ever had a marshmallow before?”
He swallowed. “I know a flower called ‘marsh mallow’. They bloom along the creek bank here in springtime. But I don’t think they taste like this.” He smiled, and Violet smiled back.
“We only eat them when we go camping. I like them a little burned from the fire. The gooey sweet part, and the crispy burned part, go together.”
She sat down on the edge of the hearth, where the warmth of the embers could still be felt radiating against her back. He sat down next to her, removing a bow and quiver from his shoulder and leaning them against the hearth. “We’re camping. What are you doing out in the woods in the middle of the night?” she whispered.
He swallowed the last of the marshmallow. “Would you believe me if I told you that this is where I live?” He gestured outward, at the trees surrounding them.
“In the woods? Like a hippie or something?”
He smiled again, and this time she saw a flash of teeth. “Not exactly.” He examined his sticky fingers for a moment, then sucked the remaining marshmallow sweetness off of them.
Violet thought about that for a minute, and in the silence, held the marshmallow bag toward him, which he waved away with a no-thank-you. She set the bag down. “Where is your house?”
“I don’t have any house. I used to. A hundred years and more ago. But I made a mistake, and I have no place to rest now. I just walk around…” He trailed off, gesturing vaguely.
“That sounds kind of boring. Are you a hunter?” She glanced curiously at the bow.
“Now and again. Although, I guess you could say I am hunting for something. There is one thing I need to find, and then I can leave these woods and live in a house again.”
Violet’s face scrunched in puzzlement. “What thing do you need?”
He seemed to debate with himself for a moment. Then he shrugged.
“I really only need one thing—a bride.”
Violet bit her lip. It sounded like the kind of fairy tale she was supposed to be too old for, and she checked his expression to see if he was teasing her like a little kid. But he looked wistful, and his gaze was not on her.
“…She would have to be very brave, though, because there is something she would have to do for me, something hard. But if she did it, then I would be free.” Violet thought that his voice almost choked on the last word. She decided he meant it, strange as it sounded, and that fairy tales weren’t so bad anyway.
“It’ll be a long time before I’m old enough to be a bride,” said Violet, “And I’m not all that brave, as you found out.”
Willis looked at her in the moonlight, and a warm smile passed over his face. He swallowed, and his hand went to his heart. “Before you know it, you will be all grown. I can wait, Violet, my friend.” He sighed, and reached for a hunting knife that was thrust through his belt. He picked through the few pieces of deadwood that were stacked, unburned, by the hearth, and started carving the bark from a stick the thickness of his thumb. “Do you want to know how it comes about that I can’t leave these woods?”
“I used to live with my family, a few miles from here.”
Violet interrupted. “How come your voice sounds a tiny bit English, or something?”
“Hmm. My Mum and Dad came from Scotland. I suppose I sound a bit like them. We had a farm, not so far from here. Working on the farm, we mostly stayed home all the time, except for school and church. But in the midsummer, aside from milking, there wasn’t so much work to do. The crops were in, the calves were born. I liked to go hunting then,” he said, touching the bow, the knife in his hand flashing briefly. “I was out one night when I shouldn’t have been, because my friends and I had been drinking. Rum, you know. Terrible, wicked stuff. I wasn’t used to that because my family was strict about such things, we went to church three times a week, teetotalers… but I guess I just wanted to try it. Anyway, as I was walking in the woods, in the dark, I took a wrong path. There was a terrible wind all around, and the stars got very, very bright. I was a little afraid, but felt reckless and wild because of the drink, and the wind. I could see ghostly shapes flying around the woods, shapes like people, and like horses and deer, and many other things. I had heard the stories—the windstorms of Wentham had been rumored to be more than wind, and not the weather of this world.
“Things around me started to change, to look like something else. I saw faces in the bark of the trees and hunched forms in the boulders. I didn’t believe they were real, but it was still scary and exciting. And the muttering. The sounds of the river and the wind sounded like unhappy voices murmuring their discontent, and it had somewhat to do with me. But there was also a sweet whispering that made me strain to hear what it had to say to me.
“The shapes came closer to me, and I could see faces, people. Then I could hear voices more clearly. They swirled around me. One face came forward. It was frightening, but it was also beautiful, so silvery and bright. Part of me wanted to say, begone in the name of Christ! But I was fascinated, and I didn’t. Next I knew, the shapes were withdrawing and pulling me along with them. I went happily at first, because, well—have you ever dreamed that you could fly? It was like that for a while.” While he talked, the knife blade continued to move around the stick of wood, its pointed deftness in contrast with the gentleness of his voice. His eyes flicked occasionally to Violet’s, but the knife never stopped flicking and twisting.
“But then I knew the dawn was coming, and the night-people had to flee. I went with them because I was curious and drawn to their beauty, but then I was trapped. They drew me into the ground with them, into hollows and roots, and the paths of salamanders and glow-worms, under cold stones and moldering leaves and the bones of small creatures.
“Under the ground there is no breath, no real life, Violet. The stillness is unpeaceful. Even the silence mutters and presses in.
“In the daytime, that is where I am, with the night-shapes. In the night, I come out as they do. Every night, just the same. I don’t get older, and I don’t change, like the night people. They never change either. They still fly around, but I don’t go with them anymore. I walk alone. I don’t like them.”
The tale should have frightened her, but there was nothing alarming about Willis. His physical presence and warmth reassured her. She shivered pleasurably. “You’re a good storyteller, Willis. Better than slumber parties. But what do you mean about the bride, that part?”
He smiled. “I’ll tell you that, and then you have to tell me about ‘slumber parties’. When I first was trapped with the night people, I spoke with them sometimes. There was that one face that I thought so beautiful. She is like their queen, the face of them all. The shapes follow her as a bee-swarm follows their queen. She sang me a song that said that since I am now like one of the dead, in order to live again I had to reunite with the living. So if I marry, I become one flesh with the living again. But my bride would have to prove herself somehow against the night-shapes. And they are deceitful.
“Have you ever been awake in the night, and you see something, perhaps your shift—that is, your dress—hanging on a peg, and it seems to be something horrid and frightful? Even if you know it’s only your dress?”
Violet nodded. “Yeah. That’s why I was scared when I broke the flashlight. That happens to me a lot in the woods. The trees seem so friendly in the daytime, but in the dark I see monsters everywhere. One time, we were even all sitting here together playing a card game, and I swear I saw that big pine over there looking at me. I screamed! Everyone jumped up and I had to tell them what I saw. Then they laughed at me and my Dad said I better go to bed.”
“In this place, that is the trick of the night-people. Of course, some of the trees do have faces, carved ones.”
“Yeah, we’ve found some of those! Those are really cool. I wonder who did them.” Willis smiled. Violet continued, “But they aren’t scary faces. And they don’t disappear when you shine a flashlight on them.”
“The ones that disappear in the light, those are tricks, illusions the night-people do just to play with you. But they also have power. If the moon is really strong, they can get really wild. They still come and take me sometimes—” he stopped, glancing at her as though he regretted the statement. He shifted in his seat and took a deep breath. “Now you tell me about those, ah…”
“Slumber parties. That’s when a bunch of girls sleep over at one girl’s house for the night. We stay up really late and eat lots of snacks and tell ghost stories and talk about stuff. Then the dad usually comes in around midnight and tells us, ‘lights out’ and pretty soon we all fall asleep.” Violet stifled a tired yawn.
Willis reached over and gently tugged one of her dark braids. “You probably should get back to bed.”
“Can you come back again? So my parents can meet you? Maybe tomorrow?”
“Sorry, love. I told you, in the day I…” He shrugged. “Would you like me to wait till you fall asleep before I leave?”
Willis chuckled softly, repeating ‘Will’ under his breath, not displeased.
While she climbed slowly and quietly back into her sleeping bag, he hummed low and soft, and the melody was sad and ancient-sounding, blending with the river’s murmur. It might have been disturbing, but she liked the sound of his voice, the soft snick of the knife against wood, and the new friend she could share with her family in the morning.
Violet snuggled farther into her sleeping bag and thought about Willis’s story. Her first grade teacher, Miss Rodriguez, would often read a story book and then ask, “Do you think this story is real, or make believe? How can you tell?” Make believe stories had magic spells, talking animals, things like that. But then, the Bible had Balaam’s talking donkey; but her Sunday School teacher and her parents had made it clear that the Bible was history, not make believe—that nothing was impossible for God.
Last Christmas, her brother told her that Santa Claus was made up. Violet had taken her outraged innocence to her mother, who admitted it. She had told her that she wanted Violet to be sure that she could trust that when her parents told her something was true, that it was really true. Violet believed her mother, because she always trusted her.
Violet decided that she trusted Willis. She couldn’t say why, exactly, but maybe the way he treated her, and the open look on his face, and the sound of his voice, all seemed to tell her that he was telling a true story, not make believe.
And anyway, she wanted to believe him. To know someone in a real ghost story was really different. The novelty displaced in her childish mind the pity of his situation.
As for Willis, when he knew she was sleeping, he ended his song, dropping his knife hand to the ground. He sat with his head on his knees, remembering every word, the look of her sweet face, and the touch of a human hand.
When the Aubreys arose, no one could figure out how the flashlight batteries had gotten turned around the wrong way, or who had left the marshmallows out, where the bag now swarmed with ants; or who had carved a tiny wooden heart and tucked it into the stones of the fireplace. Violet remembered nothing at all.
Violet’s brother drilled a hole through the wooden heart and Violet wore it on a black silk cord around her neck for a long time.